Ailing American Catholics look to Pope Benedict’s upcoming visit for a shot in the arm.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a sobering study in late February. No religion in America has seen more members lapse than the Catholic Church, Pew researchers concluded.

“The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping, the survey found,” wrote the Washington Post, reporting on the Pew study. “While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they’re Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.”

Catholicism remains the largest religious denomination in America, but only accidentally. The stability of the Church’s numbers, reported the Post, is “thanks to an influx of immigrant Catholics, mostly from Latin America. Nearly half of all Catholics under 30 are Hispanic, the survey found.”

Receiving less attention from the media but equally revealing was the Pew study’s conclusion to the question: “How many children at home do Catholics have?” For 61 percent of American Catholics, the answer is: “no children.” The rest, “One child: 13 percent; two children: 15 percent; three children: 7 percent; four or more children: 4 percent.”

These numbers explain why enrollment at Catholic elementary schools across the country is so anemic: there are very few children in Catholic households to attend them. In Washington, DC for example, Archbishop Donald Wuerl announced earlier this year that seven of the city’s 28 Catholic schools will close. This caused less outrage among Catholic parents than non- Catholic ones, who prefer the parochial schools to the district’s appalling public school system.

As the curtain rises on Pope Benedict’s visit to America in April, then, the stage appears almost empty. But is it? Paradoxically, even as the press reported fewer Catholics staying in the pews, it noted in February an explosion of interest amongst them in attending at least one Mass: Pope Benedict’s.

“Tens of Thousands Eagerly Await Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to DC,” “People Beg for Tickets to Pope’s Mass,” ran some of the headlines, referring to his scheduled April 17 Mass at Nationals Park stadium in Washington, DC.

Ailing American Catholics, in other words, are looking for a shot in the arm, and they turn to Pope Benedict, who understands the religious malaise of modern times acutely, to provide it. Their fervent interest in his visit, juxtaposed with the slumping secularized Catholicism underscored by the Pew study, throws light on the nature of the American crisis.

For liberal churchmen, the remedy to the sickness of doctrinally vague American Catholicism is larger and larger doses of it. But Pope Benedict’s remedy, to which the faithful are gravitating, is the restoration of orthodoxy.

“Progressive” Catholics, aided by a sympathetic media, predicted that Benedict, after the charismatic John Paul II, would leave Catholics cold. It hasn’t worked out that way, as Benedict enjoys a kind of cachet that derives not from worldly charisma but from rare doctrinal candor in a time of relativism.

This is a quality that American Catholics, who know perfectly well that the Church is not in a progressive springtime but deep thaw, find reassuring. For decades now they have asked for bread and been given stones. Pope Benedict offers them this substance.

Diluted Catholicism in America has been frequently justified on the grounds of practicality. But as the Pew survey cited above suggests, nothing has proven more impractical than doctrinal pragmatism: pandering bishops preach to empty pews and preside over seminaries that look like ghost towns.

In 2005, Pope Benedict, addressing the bishops of Austria during an ad limina visit, quoted what St. Paul said to the pastors of Ephesus: “I did not draw back from the task of proclaiming to you the whole counsel of God.” Drawing back from truth-telling, he told the bishops, does not attract people but alienates them:

Perhaps those who are responsible for the proclamation [of the Gospel] are afraid that people may draw back if they speak too clearly. However, experience in general demonstrates that it is precisely the opposite that happens. Don’t deceive yourselves! Catholic teaching offered in an incomplete manner is a contradiction of itself and cannot be fruitful in the long term.

Pope Benedict’s exhortation applies everywhere, from Austria to America, where we now know 10 percent of the baptized find expedient Catholicism so expedient they have left the Church.


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